The Pros and Cons of SMS/Text Alert Notification Systems

July 25th, 2011

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Last week, Baltimore City launched a new text and email alert system that will provide important alerts for issues related to public safety and crime.  According to Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake, “[t]his new system is an important addition to our efforts to improve transparency and communication with the citizens of Baltimore using technology and social media.”

Social Media and Text Messaging/SMS outreach programs are quickly becoming commonplace throughout the country in an effort to provide citizens with alerts, news and information that is timely and accurate.  Wireless carriers and federal agencies are coming together to deliver an SMS-based alert system for mobile phone users, with the service scheduled to begin later this year in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Along with the FCC, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is coordinating with major wireless carriers on the free service.  According to Phil Goldstein, writing for Fierce Wireless “the system, known as the Personal Localized Alerting Network, or PLAN, will be available on some phones that have specially enabled chips and software by the end of the year, and will be rolled out on a nationwide basis next year.  Carriers said they will eventually require the chipset to be in all phones.” 

"This is the ability to have your mobile device be an emergency alert device," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told Bloomberg.  "Government officials can send alerts in the event of major disasters, can do it on a localized basis, and can make sure that the alerts get through even if there’s network congestion."  

But is SMS the perfect emergency communications channel?  There are serious limitations on using SMS for emergencies, especially in the form of third party Emergency Alert Systems (EAS).  Dr. Pieter Streicher of The Media Online indicates that “when sending out communications, these limitations include the facts that cellular networks have not been designed to cope with emergency-scale traffic volumes via SMS, targeting users by location is difficult, and there is no way to authenticate a message.” 

Another issue for cities to take into account when using this type of notification system is coordination, or lack of coordination, between public safety agencies (i.e. Police Department, Fire Department, Office of Emergency Management).  For example, if you do a Facebook search for Baltimore City Police, you get five different “Baltimore City Police” results on the first page alone.  Currently, nearly every city department has their own Facebook, Twitter, and Nixle accounts and text alerts.  (Nixle is an alert system that allows police and other public safety agencies to send text and email notifications to community members.)  What happens when there’s an incident and 6 different city agencies are blasting 6 different messages and none of them match up?

Of course, there is no denying that having access to more information during a crisis is a good thing.  The more information residents are armed with, the better chance there will be to mitigate any potential hazard or danger to a particular area or city.  And by increasing the number of different platforms through which someone can access information, cities will ensure that they have a more informed citizenry in general.  The main goal, however, should be to have a coordinated media response policy which will ensure all agencies are sending out unified messages in order to most effectively and efficiently prepare the individuals they serve.

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